Walz: Students can return to middle, high school buildings Monday

A teen sitting at a desk wears a face mask and raises her hand.
Ella Palmer laughs while raising her hand in Deb Coy's government class for seniors at Carlton High School in September in Carlton, Minn. Gov. Tim Walz is expected to release updated guidelines Wednesday on opening secondary schools for in-person learning.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP 2020

Updated 5:35 p.m.

Minnesota school districts will be able to reopen their middle and high school buildings to students starting Feb. 22, Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday.

Students in those schools can return to classrooms for hybrid or in-person learning with the expectation that all schools will offer some form of in-person learning by March 8, officials said. Distance learning options would be available for students uncomfortable about returning.

Share of Minnesota students learning in person by grade

Schools will still be required to stay vigilant against the disease’s spread, requiring masking and social distancing for students and staff while indoors.

“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely,” Walz said during a noon briefing, citing progress on vaccinations along with the state’s improving pandemic metrics. “We’re on our way to ending the pandemic. We’re beating this thing.”

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According to his office, nearly 25 percent of teachers have been at least partially vaccinated so far and school staff next week will have access to more than 18,000 doses at state vaccine sites. Walz predicted “the bulk of our educators” would be vaccinated by March 8.

Pressed by reporters about whether he would force school districts to reopen buildings by March 8, the governor said the plan depended on partnerships with local officials and that the state would “cross each of those bridges when they come.”

Wednesday’s announcement comes in the middle of a tumultuous school year. As the virus raged, many schools pivoted to full-time distance learning around Thanksgiving, but thanks to loosened state restrictions, began bringing back its youngest students starting last month.

Many Minnesota students already back in classrooms

St. Paul and Minneapolis, two of the state’s largest school districts, now offer in-person learning for elementary school students, but close to 40 percent of those students have still chosen distance learning. Late Wednesday, the St. Paul district said is was “moving forward to begin returning our older students on Feb. 22.”

The governor’s plan also did not offer any additional guidance on events tied to schools, such as proms, graduations or prep sports.

The updated rules come days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released COVID-19 protocols for schools, and nearly two months after Walz put out an amended road map to get the state’s youngest learners back to in-person classes.

Last week, Walz said he wanted all Minnesota students back in classrooms as soon as possible, but said he would not set a date requiring the return of in-person learning and would work closely with local school leaders.

Share of Minnesota students by learning model

Under current state guidance, middle and high school leaders must consult with local public health officials on county case rates of COVID-19 before choosing an in-person, distance or hybrid learning scenario for their students. 

State health officials say they haven’t found any evidence yet of widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the schools in the state that are teaching in-person.

Public elementary schools are no longer required to consult with local health officials or use county case rate data before deciding whether or not to offer an in-person option for their students but must follow safety precautions. 

New federal guidelines also instruct school leaders to look at regional COVID-19 spread when determining whether to open schools for in-person learning.

Share of students learning in person by grade

The CDC recommends layering safety protocols such as masking, social distancing, hand-washing and ventilation. It also urges middle and high schools in communities where viral transmission is high to remain in distance learning unless mitigation measures are “strictly” implemented.

In recent weeks, Walz has prioritized school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations; Minnesota is just one of 28 states to do so. He has also directed schools to offer on-site COVID-19 testing for their staff. According to Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann, 96 percent of Minnesota districts are participating in the testing program. 

Republican state lawmakers have urged Walz to ease up on restrictions and allow more schools to reopen. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, in a recent emailed statement threw her support behind a bill seeking to limit Walz’s peacetime emergency authority to close schools.  

“There is widespread agreement about the importance of getting students back into the classroom,” Nelson wrote. “The decision on how and when to reopen should not be made from the governor’s office. It should come from local school boards and community leaders.”

Minnesota school administrative leaders have said the bill is not necessary. 

Read the full planning guide for schools here.

What’s new starting Feb. 22

  • Rolling starts go away. K-12 schools are no longer required to implement a rolling start to hybrid or in-person learning.

  • New data sources for decision-making. Districts will no longer be required to follow county-level COVID-19 case data alone when deciding on which learning model to implement. Schools are now being instructed to look closely at staff capacity and spread within the school: If about 5 percent of students and/or staff are sick with “COVID-19-like” illness within a week, schools are strongly encouraged to consider a more restrictive learning model.

  • Plans shift to match guidance.  If schools were already operating with an in-person or hybrid learning model, they should change their plans to match this new guidance.

  • Regular COVID-19 testing encouraged.  School leaders are being directed to strongly recommend that students and their families get COVID-19 tests every two weeks. State leaders point to free testing options around the state as a resource.

  • Three feet of distance for younger kids. For early learning and elementary schools, the state is recommending students and staff keep at least 3 feet of physical distance. It’s also suggested that students remain in small groups that do not mix with other groups throughout the school day.

  • Six feet of distance for teens.  For middle and high school students, there is a requirement of 6 feet of distance between individuals whenever possible — and when it isn’t possible, there is a stricter requirement of 3 feet.

  • Lunchroom seating rules.  Schools are required to document lunchroom seating to help in the event contact tracing is needed. The 6-feet distancing requirement applies to lunchrooms for middle and high school students, but if that’s not feasible, schools are instructed to create as much distance as possible. The state is also recommending that schools keep the same students grouped together while eating each day — all while maintaining the recommended 6 feet of distance between students.

Gov. Walz details plan to reopen secondary school buildings to students:

Walz responds to questions from reporters:

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this reporting.